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date: 16 August 2017

Alfred Métraux: Between Ethnography and Applied Knowledge

Summary and Keywords

Alfred Métraux was part of a prolific moment in which French sociology and ethnology were enlarging their scientific scope and advancing toward new fields. Following the colonial expansion of France, Métraux participated in establishing ethnographic methods for codifying social life, material culture, and artistic forms. Through his own transatlantic voyages and personal exchanges, Métraux left personal documents in different parts of the world. Consequently, many are the archives that hold parts of his personal collections, letters, and published or unpublished materials. In addition, because of Métraux’s own cosmopolitanism, studies on the ethnologist’s life and works can be found in different languages. Métraux meticulously collected artifacts and documents from different cultures, and these items are now part of collections in museums in Argentina, France, and the United States. The multiplicity of themes Métraux dedicated himself to during his life reveal logics and developments of his work, as well as the importance of fieldwork to his making as an anthropologist, or a “man of the field,” as he used to describe himself. His intense and long-term relationship with Haitian Vodou was central in his career as it arose from his early interest in vanishing civilizations, religious systems, and material culture, and defined his personal agenda for future research.

Keywords: Alfred Métraux, cosmopolitanism, Atlantic world, Haitian Vodou, applied knowledge, ethics, ethnographic collections, human rights, UNESCO

The Making of an Ethnographer

On his first trip to Haiti, on the summer of 1941, the Swiss ethnologist Alfred Métraux observed a scene that marked him for the rest of his career. At Croix-des-Bouquets, north of Port-au-Prince, he saw a pile of drums and ritual artifacts about to be burned in an auto-da-fé organized by a local priest. As the ethnologist described it, at the vertex of an intense process of persecution known as the “antisuperstition campaign,” the offensive against popular religious practices and beliefs “awaken[ed his] desire to undertake the study before it was too late.”1 Even if Métraux was to be proved wrong by internal logics of Vodou and its connections to wide political systems, family and heritage dynamics, and transnational displacements, what he witnessed in the years he worked in Haiti was a process that left marks in Haitian cultural and religious landscapes. But Métraux’s interest in vanishing cultural artifacts and social phenomena, as well as his careful attention to the theatrical dimensions of social life, were developed during his formative years, spent divided between a stimulating intellectual scene in Paris and an important museum in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Alfred Métraux obtained his doctoral degree in June 1928 at the École des Hautes Études in Paris, after having studied and graduated from major French institutions and after an academic sojourns in Gothenburg. In Sweden, he studied with the zoologist and archeologist Erland Nordenskiöld and had contact with important ethnographic material from South America. He graduated with two dissertations, one about the material culture of Tupi-Guarani groups,2 and the other, called a “complementary” dissertation in the French educational system, on Tupinamba’s religion.3

By the time he obtained his doctoral degree, Métraux was already a promising young ethnologist, part of a prolific group of European intellectuals, writers, and artists. Gathered around the Musée d’Éthnologie du Trocadéro and the Institut d’Ethnologie, they shared not only a strong interest for exoticism and radical difference, greatly inspired by the Surrealist movement and the possibilities of allying literary and artistic techniques to scientific methods, but also common political views on ethics, social justice, and emancipation. Museums then had the central role in the promotion of pedagogic experience of difference to the wider public, training them as engaged and conscious human beings. This was taking place at a particularly volatile time in Europe. Fascism was gaining grounds and affecting people’s daily lives. Not surprisingly, museums became important places for resistance in France, around notably figures such as Yvonne Oddon, a friend and later collaborator of Métraux. Along with Marcel Mauss, Paul Rivet, Georges Rivière, and Marcel Griaulle, in the interwar period they established the first drafts of the field of French ethnology4 drawing inspiration from the sociological work of Émile Durkheim and his colleagues from the journal L’Année Sociologique.5

It was Marcel Mauss, then director of the Institut of Ethnology, who suggested to Alfred Métraux that he analyze the unpublished travel accounts from 16th-century Brazil, for instance, the writings of André Thevet, the French Franciscan priest who lived in the Portuguese colony from 1556 to 1557. The Franciscan’s description contained eyewitness accounts of an anthropophagic ritual and by carefully reading these fragmented and diffuse sources, along with other materials, Métraux was able to reconstruct the whole Tupinamba cosmology and its civilization in a specific moment of its history. It was a lucid exercise inspired directly by Mauss’s method of analysis through total social facts in which travelers’ and missionaries’ descriptions were taken as ethnographic and historical sources. In these sources, the anthropophagic ritual was considered as a revelation of a society’s ensemble and its articulations Métraux was in fact one of the first scholars to identify the philosophic dimension of Amerindian myths. He also emphasized the role of shamans and prophets as important religious and political actors.6 But Paul Rivet’s insistence on the fieldwork as an épreuve de feu and Erland Nordenskiöld’s attention to cultural diffusion were equally influential on Métraux’s training, views, and early projects.

Following French colonial expansion, this was a time of new scientific explorations not only by venturing to new terrains and distant places but also by inscribing cultures or civilizations in a specific codified way that composed the ethnological science.7 Right after his degree, Métraux (followed by his wife, Eva Spiro Métraux, and their eighteen-month-old son, Éric) moved to Mendoza, Argentina, a city where his father, a surgeon, had made much of his career and acquired much prestige. Alfred Métraux was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, on November 5, 1902, of a mother with Russian origins and had lived part of his childhood in the South American country. His long connection with Argentina, his mastery of Spanish, the previous explorations of the region, and also his familiarity with Nordenskiöld’s work on the Gran Chaco and the Andean Highlands made him the most certain choice to assume the position of director of the Instituto de Etnología de la Universidade Nacional de Tucumán, a project envisioned by the local industrial elite and developed by Paul Rivet in 1928 after a four-month scientific mission in the country.8

At the Institute of Ethnology in Argentina, Métraux was able not only to apply all his ethnological knowledge acquired in Paris and Gothenburg, but he was also close to an important and diversified cultural area he was already familiar with and that he would take again as his field in the following six years.9 The institute was part of an institutional network and ambitious collective project, associated directly with French ethnographic missions, the creation of institutions abroad, and the formation of museum collections. As the head of the Institute of Ethnology, Métraux created and edited one journal, taught courses, and established an ethnographic museum which granted him the possibility of comparing objects and artistic forms from different times and places. But his intention was not only a comparative and analytical one. Métraux wanted to collect what was vanishing. He would later admit, “One of the greatest sorrows of my adult life was to have witnessed the agony of many of those small societies […] that in fact hold a profound value and whose disappearance invariably represents a great loss.”10

Of Vanishing Sociocultural Artifacts

Staying in Paris was not an option for the young ethnologist. Paul Rivet wanted him to fulfill a training abroad to become a true ethnographer, and Métraux felt particularly moved, sometimes in a strongly pessimistic way, by what he could learn being close to societies that were going through rapid changes. At the Institute of Ethnology, in Tucumán, Métraux was able to develop a form of control over what was disappearing, gathering materials and narratives but also denouncing in his publications the negative effects of modernization.11 As a more triumphalist Paul Rivet would later explain, “The Institute has achieved an important contribution. It has promoted four big ethnographic expeditions (…). During those missions significant documents were assembled: three native languages that were about to disappear were saved, rich collections were gathered and Tucumán became an important center for ethnic research in South America.” This contribution was in fact part of the role Rivet and his group conceived to be the duty of ethnographers in response to the rapid changes associated with colonialism. “Colonial questions” had to be approached by the “scientific spirit,” and Argentina, “which has also indigenous problems will find in this kind of institution (…) the support for their resolution.”12

Métraux was sure that in a couple of decades there would be only traces of these important South American cultures, destined to disappear facing local conflicts, industrial expansion, and urbanization. Civilizations such as the Chiriguano and the Chané, which had survived the Inca expansion and the Spanish colonization, were now suffering from an intense process of acculturation, losing their knowledge, material culture, and language. The field researcher had the sacred and ethical duty to collect and inscribe ethnographically those disappearing sociocultural products, including myths, oral traditions, songs, objects, and artistic themes. In contrast to his early works, Métraux’s research and publications during his years in Argentina were densely based on ethnographic fieldwork.

In his work Études sur la civilization des indiens chiriguano, published in the first volume of the Revista del Instituto de Etnología de Tucumán, in 1930, the author was particularly interested in pottery due to its malleability compared to other materials, which made it open to ample possibilities for the inscription of forms, themes, and cultural information.13 A whole investigation was structured only by paying attention to the craft and diffusion of drawings and forms foreseeing connections, exchanges, and movements among populations of the Chaco and the Andes. The Chiriguano people would prove historical connections with the Tupinamba from Brazilian coast that Métraux studied previously. The Tupinamba were known for their extensive migrations, even to the Chaco Plain, and their search for the “Land-without-evil,” a place of affluence, eternal life, and victory in war.14 Similar to his analysis of their material culture, Métraux argued that through the analysis of their oral traditions, material and symbolic exchanges could be revealed and a mythical landscape could serve as a map to deduce variations and historical changes.

Pottery was also a sign of how European influence was being received among the Chiriguano, the Chané, and other groups of the region. For Métraux, patterns, some of them of pre-Colombian origins, were being forgotten or were losing their artistic value due to a commodification process associated with the expansion of tourism in the region.15 Women who dedicated themselves to these crafts had a particular role in Chiriguano societies as keepers of tradition, while male mobility and absence were particularly notable during Métraux expeditions.16 But his attention was also directed to the artistic process and aesthetic value of these objects. Métraux employed language such as “good taste,” “elegant,” “artistic form,” “artistic traditions,” and “aesthetics” to describe objects and drawings that he collected and exhibited at the Tucumán museum. A language quite different from his usual scientific and evolutionist vocabulary. It seemed, as Villar and Bossert observe, closer to “an idea of art similar to the one surrealist movement defended, a movement in which Métraux was an active participant.”17 Analogous to the West African masks exhibited at the Trocadéro Museum that inspired Pablo Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, these objects and their production were artistic expressions on their own and could be taken as revealing primeval stages of human arts.18

After six years at the Institute of Ethnology, Métraux felt the weight of distance from his friends and from the flourishing Parisian environment. He was bored, isolated, and thought himself destined to agonize in an “outlaw existence as a franc-tireur of science,” as he would write to his friend and confidant, Yvonne Oddon.19 Apart from that, his intentions to engage politically with the indigenous welfare in Argentina were frustrated, as the country was at the time going through a nationalist climate oriented toward its Hispanic past and silent about its Amerindian roots, as anthropologist Edgardo Krebs reveals.20

Back to Paris in January 1934 for a short break, the ethnologist began looking for something else to dedicate himself to, perhaps alongside his friend Georges Henri Rivière, coordinating museum exhibitions as they once did; teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études; or participating in scientific expeditions to Africa, Asia, or French Guiana. Again, the relentless and pragmatic Paul Rivet took the initiative and invited Métraux to take part in a Belgian-French ethnographic mission to Easter Island. According to Christine Laurière, Métraux was only thirty-two years old when he represented France on such an important mission, and it seems that Rivet convinced him to be the ethnographer and linguist of that enterprise by promising him an ethnographic mission in one of the French African colonies or a position in Paris. Although Métraux showed clear evidence of his hesitations, the enterprise to the Pacific Island was definitely a way for him to earn scientific prestige among his colleagues in France and who better than himself, already familiar with South American contexts and its bureaucratic puzzles to co-direct this odyssey. In July 1934, aboard of the colonial vessel Rigault de Genouilly, Métraux started the journey to his new field.21

The Nostalgic Traveler

Easter Island became an obscure object of desire to many scientists, collectors, and travelers due to its mysterious monolithic stone statues, the moai, and to its writing system inscribed in wood boards, known as rongorongo, so complex and rich that they raised important controversies among archeologists, orientalists, linguists, and philologists. On the foreword of the first edition of his book L’Île de Pâques, Alfred Métraux reveals that he had an interest in the island’s mysteries from an early age, thanks to stories about this legendary island full of gigantic statues by his father’s cabinet of curiosities, which included Easter Island axes and vegetable tissues.22

The decade of the 1930s was a heroic time for French ethnology, finding new terrains and expanding scientific methodologies. Durkheim’s sociological theories and those of his colleagues gained important recognition but compared to other imperialist nations, ethnographic missions were still not at the center of French ethnological enterprise. The Ethnographic and Linguistic Mission Dakar-Djibouti was a turning point. Museums and the Colonial Ministry were at the center of this project. For the first time in history of France, the Dakar-Djibouti Mission found official and financial support from the Parliament through a law passed on March 31, 1931. Popular support was no less considerable, and followed the excitement around the Paris Colonial Exhibition in that same year. After the success of the Dakar-Djibouti Mission, other expeditions were organized and the Easter Island mission was one among them.23

At the end of July 1934, Métraux and Henry Lavachery, his Belgian colleague with whom he developed a close friendship, reached the shores of Easter Island on a windy and rainy winter day. The rural landscape, the twisted reefs, the sharp ridges and needles that received the force of the sea reminded the ethnologist of Sweden, “if it were not for the strange, forbidding, diabolical rocks of the foreground.” The mission’s chief purpose was an investigation about the island’s past and the group was promptly introduced to two important figures: Victoria Rapahango, who was “perhaps the last person who perpetuates on Easter Island the traditions of nobility and culture of the old Polynesian aristocracy” and who mediated their relations with the village of Hanga-roa, checked Métraux’s notes, and helped him with the reconstruction of ancient techniques; and Juan Tepano, a local sculptor and wise man, who looked and had the character of “certain old Parisian artists,” in Métraux’s first impression. Tepano was in fact “an authority in ethnographic matters [whose reputation] had spread as far as Chile” and due to his knowledge, he was “living history.” His mother, Viriamo, was “born ‘in the time of the kings.’” She was not able to speak, but her tattooed legs revealed an ancient custom of the island, somewhat connected to Polynesia. Viriamo was already born when the first missionaries arrived in 1864 and it was to her that Tepano owed his knowledge, as he declared to Métraux and Lavachery.24

While Lavachery was focused on describing and measuring ruins, burial sites, and petroglyphs, and Israel Drapkin—a Chilean physician who was also part of the group—treated the locals, analyzed their blood, and gathered demographic and physical information, Métraux was collecting stories and analyzing archeological findings. As he would state, unlike other scientists who dedicated themselves to the mysteries of that place, “he was attracted by these few hundred Polynesians who have survived so many disasters and continue to speak their ancient language and hand down the legends and stories of their distant ancestors.” Easter Island had some similarities with the Gran Chaco. The island was in state of decay and Métraux did not ignore that. “I was not unaware(…),” he declared, “of their ignorance of the old religion and past customs.” Like the old Viriamo that Métraux and Lavachery encountered, the island was “a body without a soul.”25

But Métraux hoped that he would at least experience a “faint murmur” of rare techniques and traditions “from old times which would give [him] fresh insight into the ‘mysteries’ of the island.” Again, the ethnographer felt impelled to carefully collect legends, stories, and objects, in an effort to fulfill the difficult “imperative of ethnographic rescue,” to use Laurière’s formulation, and to observe practices and customs in order to confront and discuss theories about a civilization whose past was of great fascination, as statutes and graphic boards could materially testify. The expedition lasted for five months and resulted in a work of historical ethnography. Collections of objects were sent to the Trocadéro Ethnographic Museum and to the Royal Museum of Art and History, in Belgium.26

In January 2, 1935, Métraux and Lavachery boarded the Belgian training ship Mercator and sailed toward Polynesia. For a couple of months they explored these Southern seas until they reached the seaport of Honolulu. There Métraux was received by a group from the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, where he found an opportune academic environment to discuss and scrutinize his research materials and formulate his own analysis and critiques of other theories, sometimes even in disagreement with his professor, Paul Rivet.27 He had the support of Rivet, who was very satisfied with the quantity of objects and quality of information Métraux had gathered, and for the exhibition he would organize at the Trocadéro Museum. In January 1936, Métraux assumed the position of ethnologist in charge at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. It was far from the promised position in Paris and the proximity to the Trocadéro group or from an expedition in some French colony in Africa toward which Métraux would feel constantly inclined, but his coming of professional age in Hawai’i was the start of a journey to the North American academic scene.

By dedicating himself to reading about Polynesia and to publishing his analysis against established interpretations that he considered erroneous, mystifying, and lacking attention to archeological and ethnographic data, Métraux soon became a recognized specialist of Easter Island. During this time, he maintained intense correspondence with important anthropologists such as Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber, and worked together with Peter Buck (a.k.a. Te Rangi Hiroa) and Kenneth Emory, both specialists of Polynesia, who collaborated with comparative materials to support Métraux’s thesis. Many of his articles were published in English, and his first extensive work dedicated to the island was published in English at the Bishop Museum Bulletin.28 He was in search of prestige and recognition both among his Anglophone peers and his French colleagues. Sometime later, in 1941, came a more literary version of his research in French, as L’Île de Pâques, his “second book” in Vincent Debaene’s sense.29

Destined to Insular Mysteries

Métraux left Europe with clear intentions of finding a place in the United States. A certain degree of frustration with not being chosen for a position in Paris nor a mission to Africa, as well as some divergences with Rivet, may have motivated his desire to seek refuge abroad. But he also had a deep interest in North American approaches to ethnography. As he told Michel Leiris, in 1936, “I’ve finally found a mother-land. I love this country, as you would love it yourself.”30 Métraux had applied to become an US citizen in 1936, and in 1941, he was granted it. He assumed a double nationality from thence onward.

From 1938 on, Métraux taught and was enrolled in different places such as Berkeley, Yale, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 1941, he was hired as assistant editor at the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution. There Métraux had a prolific time and contributed more than anyone else to the monumental Handbook of South American Indians. This encyclopedic work had the support of the U.S. Department of State and was organized by the anthropologist Julian Steward. Its first volume was published in 1946, making public an enormous amount of data from different South American groups systematized around geographic and cultural areas or general themes, divided into common subjects such as geography, environment, history, mythology, material culture, psychology, and social organization. Métraux’s contribution ranged from the Chaco populations and Amerindian groups to more general and comparative articles in sections sometimes co-authored with anthropologists such as Herbert Baldus and Curt Nimuendajú. Commenting on the six volumes of the Handbook, anthropologist Paul Radin argued that “here, for the first time, in any language, can one obtain a broad aperçu of cultures that, for all but the specialist, hitherto represented a terra icognita.”31

Métraux’s previous work and continuous interest in South American populations earned him an important role on the edited volumes. Expressing his gratitude to Alfred Métraux, Steward commented soberly that both Métraux’s “unsurpassed knowledge of South American ethnology” and great generosity were crucial to the completion of the work.32 But, as Priscila Faulhaber remarks, while Métraux spent his first two years as assistant editor to later become assistant director at the Smithsonian Institution, Julian Steward’s excess of care about his career and his will to be in control of the whole editing process, being the only editor of the six volumes, ended up wearing out their relationship.33

His time at the Smithsonian Institution was crucial for his adjustment to this new academic environment, but also to finding new fields. During the interwar period, the United States became the destiny for many Europeans seeking refuge. As Claude Lévi-Strauss would later remember, Métraux was in part responsible for finding him a position in New York, showing remarkable “care for that an occasion would be offered him to escape the occupant.”34 In 1941, young Lévi-Strauss was forced to flee a Paris occupied by the Nazis and under Vichy rule. In New York, the Franco-Belgian ethnologist lived a fruitful intellectual period during which he placed aside his early political engagements, encountered important American anthropologists, and advanced his work on elementary structures of kinship while reading and building on network theories, Russian linguistics, and mathematics.35 Unlike his friend, Métraux had already abandoned the aspiration of returning to France. He was engaged in intellectual projects and was developing affective ties on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1941, then based at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations, Métraux married his second wife, Rhoda Bubendey, an anthropologist from the same institution and a student of Bronislaw Malinowski. In the summer of the same year, the couple traveled to Haiti, a place they would soon return and to which they would dedicate important part of their professional and personal lives.

In 1941 and in 1944, Alfred Métraux visited Haiti for short periods of time. These journeys were quite fruitful, and Métraux felt motivated to actually pursue an engagement that would combine ethnographic work with the promotion of social progress. It was also a form of taking forward his desire to work among black populations and doing a “black ethnography” (ethnographie noire), something he desired since his early travels to Africa, always sparse and casual.36 This interest in Africa and “the black Americas” (Les Amériques noires) and its heterogeneous cultures and histories motivated and excited him. Most importantly, it connected him with ancient friends such as Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille.37 Since his first trip to Haiti, even though a honeymoon, Métraux did not want to have a simple touristic experience. He received advice on what to look for to have an authentic experience from Melville J. Herskovits, the important American anthropologist, author of Life in a Haitian Valley (1937).38 The couple arrived in a particular moment when Haiti was under the government of Élie Lescot. It was the apogee of the antisuperstition campaign, a series of missions directed by the Catholic Church promoting violent raids, pyres, persecutions, and symbolic violence against family or collective temples and sanctuaries, known as ounfò. The antisuperstition campaign had some support from state authorities, foreign clergy, police forces, and local political chiefs. These missions ended up codifying popular practices and cosmologies under the label of “superstition” at the same time that it recognized and reinforced their power, creating an enormous impact on Haitian popular culture, spiritual practices, and political landscape.39

The “huge pyramid of drums and ‘superstitious objects’” Métraux saw behind a presbytery in Croix-de-Bouquet, near Port-au-Prince, was an example of the performative violence promoted by the antisuperstition campaign. By witnessing this process, Métraux felt compelled to start an effort to salvage some of these objects at the same time that it “awaken[ed] [his] desire to undertake the study before it was too late.” Métraux was sensitive not only to the destruction of objects due to their ethnographic importance but also due to “aesthetic reasons” which might be explained by his earlier fascination for the Surrealist movement and its intellectual and artistic possibilities.40 The same feeling he experienced during his ethnographic work at the Gran Chaco led him to a similar effort to collect objects and ritual artifacts. Alfred and Rhoda Métraux found a friend and colleague in Jacques Roumain, a Haitian anthropologist who had studied in New York and Paris, with both Mauss and Rivet, and who had returned to Haiti in 1941 after six years in exile.41 Roumain accompanied the couple on a trip to Île de la Tortue in Northern Haiti. About him, Métraux wrote: “The Haitian writer Jacques Roumain, (…) was equally convinced of the need to put on record the story of Voodoo which seemed so gravely threatened. To this end, and out of our discussions, was born the idea of a ‘Bureau of Ethnology’ for Haiti.”42

The Haitian Experience

From what we know, Métraux did not return to Haiti before 1944. In the meantime, Jacques Roumain had consolidated the Bureau d’Ethnologie as an educational center for Haitian archeology and ethnology, combining Roumain’s attention to both universal values and cultural particularisms. In November 1944, Métraux returned to Haiti for one month as associated director of the Institute of Social Anthropology of the Smithsonian Institution in a mission of cultural cooperation sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. It was a time in which the United States was developing its war effort and expanding its foreign policy. Anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Geoffrey Gorer, Ruth Benedict, and Rhoda Métraux were developing methodologies and theoretical elaborations about the study of national character and engaging themselves in applying anthropology to international relations.43 Alfred Métraux himself participated in 1945, a bit before the armistice, at a military division coordinated by the United States in which a group of sociologists and psychologists went to Germany to study the social and psychological effects of city bombings.44

Alfred Métraux went back to Haiti with the objective of consolidating his connections with the Bureau of Ethnology. He pursued his effort to collect and stimulate the collection of artifacts at the same time that he looked for documents on Haitian culture that could be published in scientific journals in English or French. By that time, Jacques Roumain had already passed away, but Métraux found the Bureau of Ethnology flourishing and developing interesting studies about society and culture. The antisuperstition campaign had lost its force due to political changes, popular resistance, and, as Kate Ramsey argues, cultural rearrangements around the notion of Haitian folklore.45 At the Bureau, Alfred Métraux also met Odette Mennesson-Rigaud, a Frenchwoman who was married to the Haitian intellectual and artist Milo Rigaud. Although not anthropologist by profession, she cultivated an interest toward Vodou and had a strong familiarity with popular classes and with Haitian Creole.

As an equivalent to Victoria Rapahongo and Juan Tepano, Odette Mennesson-Rigaud was to Métraux an interlocutor who granted him the possibility of entering this other cultural world by facilitating access to temples and by introducing him to important priests, sacerdotal figures, and servers. As Métraux stated, she had “ample information about subjects usually hidden from foreigners.” By being able to read her notes, Métraux urged her to make a part “available to science,” and they selected the description of a ceremony organized around the feeding of spirits, known as manje lwa, to be published as an article in 1946. Alfred and Rhoda Métraux themselves translated it, and Alfred wrote the introduction. This foreword was the first essay of a research project that involved many publications and in which he engaged himself for more than ten years until the publication of his monograph Le Vaudou Haïtien, in 1958.46

His was an effort to take Vodou as a scientific object, going against popular biased accounts, such as those produced by foreigners during the U.S. occupation (1915–1934), and having as model important contributions such as the works of Jean Price-Mars, Melville Herskovits, and Jacques Roumain. During his sojourns in Haiti, Métraux received visits from friends and colleagues such as Michel Leiris, Yvonne Oddon, and Pierre Verger, who together or individually ended up publishing something about their experience.47 Besides, the companions that Métraux found in Haiti made his work there more fruitful and granted it an important collective dimension. As he would later admit to his friend Georges Bataille, “the Haitian experience (…) was the only gratifying one in all its senses. It is possible that I would have better succeeded if my work was developed (…) in societies where I could have made friends and in which I would have been able to get out of myself. In Haiti, I did not feel bored as I was able to speak and react in equality.”48 Not surprisingly Métraux dedicated his book to Mennesson-Rigaud and to Lorgina Delorge, a Vodou priestess (mambo) from the popular quartier of La Salines, in Port-au-Prince, a place where Métraux became a habitué and was considered “a child of the house” or pitit kay.49

Vodou acquired in Métraux’s work a clear distinction from common-sense assumptions and was viewed as a religious system operating through the combination of daily practices; possessions; rituals; spiritual and ancestor agency; and the circulation of objects, food, and gifts. Métraux also argued against certain views that would stress the African heritage and the quest for origins in New World religions. Vodou was a syncretic phenomenon “born fairly recently from a fusion of many different elements.” And “it is the dynamic aspect of Voodoo always evolving before our eyes which is more to our purpose than the rich material it affords to the erudite, possessed by a craving for the search for origins.”50 One should not only look for Africa in Haiti, “but [to] our own classical heritage.”51 “The difference between a Haitian houmfò [Vodou temple],” he stated, “and a country temple in ancient Greece is not great.”52 His point of view was not distant from the universalistic arguments that the Haitian ethnologist and diplomat Jean Price-Mars made in his important book about the making of Haitian culture.53 Crucial to this initiative were the dialogues he had and observations he made among peasants and other social groups he encountered in Port-au-Prince and in the South, around the city of Jacmel, in the Marbial Valley. This was possible due to the new functions Alfred Métraux assumed as senior social officer at the Department of Social Affairs of the United Nations, in New York, in 1947, and later at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

At the Crossroad: Between Ethnography and Applied Knowledge

It was one year after the creation of UNESCO that, aware of the educational and peace building work that the institution was planning to promote around the globe after the huge impact of World War II, the Haitian government proposed to participate in a pilot project aiming at the development of literacy and education. Approved at the Second Session of UNESCO General Conference, in 1947, the project would be developed in a locality in the South of the country, not far from the town of Jacmel, indicated by the Haitian government and financed by the Viking Fund of New York, UNESCO, and the Haitian state.54 It was a project in which social expertise could be combined with ethnographic knowledge and methods in a form of applied anthropology aiming toward medium- and long-term goals. It was not only the case of studying a civilization or a religion suffering an intense process of acculturation in which objects should be gathered and exposed in museums and myths and practices should be registered through ethnographic writing. Métraux showed great excitement about the possibility of combining knowledge with practical action as an applied anthropologist, and he reflected about it on many occasions through articles published in scientific journals, but also in magazines of wider circulation.55

With the intention of forming and training a group in field research and data analysis, in 1948 the couple gathered a group of young people, such as the agronomist Édouard Berrouet; doctors; and social scientists, some of them with some background in anthropology, as for instance, Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, who studied in London with Bronislaw Malinowski, and Rémy Bastien who was a student at the Universidad de México. Together they conducted surveys on villages around the Marbial Valley, exploring food exchanges, agricultural knowledge and practices, economics, hygiene and medical practices, kinship relations, all along paying attention to social dynamics and psychological and mental structures that would help on the effective success of the pilot project. The idea was to reinforce local education, build schools and community centers, cooperatives of production, dispensaries, and a center of art and education. Later the project expanded its goals, engaging with health and agricultural problems finding support from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. From the collective research resulted many articles on peasant’s education, family and households, funeral rites, religion, and the report co-authored by Alfred Métraux, Jean and Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain and Édouard Berrouet, Making a Living in the Marbial Valley (or L’homme et la terre dans la Vallée de Marbial), both in English and French published by UNESCO in 1951, along with Rhoda Métraux’s doctoral dissertation Kith and Kin: A Study of Créole Social Structure in Marbial, Haiti (1951) and Rémy Bastien’s dissertation La família rural haitiana (1951). Also, a book on Haitian Creole grammar and linguistic was published in 1953 by Robert Hall, professor at Cornell University, in collaboration with Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, H. Ormonde McCornell, and Métraux.

The project ended up not achieving its main goals. Alfred Métraux coordinated it until August 1949, returning to Haiti in early 1950 due to problems the new director in charge of the project in the field was facing. In general the whole enterprise was subject to excessive bureaucratic demands, funding interruptions, local political and religious conflicts, and the support from the Haitian government who started to aim its attention toward the Exposition international du bicentenaire. Métraux became aware of the limited role anthropologists could fulfill by occupying a position of authority in such projects. Although “control of the project and ethnographic research” were, for him, “utterly incompatible,” he had not lost his confidence in the importance of social scientists, particularly anthropologists, for giving technical assistance on programs contributing to human progress and emancipation such as those the United Natoins and other institutions were fomenting at that time.56 His next work at UNESCO was exactly the opportunity to be more directly engaged in these efforts as a social scientist. In April 1, 1950, he moved to Paris to become responsible for UNESCO’s Division for the Study of Race Problems, replacing the Brazilian scholar Arthur Ramos, who died a year before unexpectedly. Métraux was already divorced from Rhoda Métraux, with whom he had his second child, Daniel.

Before 1950, Métraux had previously visited Brazil on numerous occasions and had shown great interest in the work of Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre as early as 1940.57 From 1950 on, Métraux published numerous articles at the The UNESCO Courier, the institution’s newspaper, in which he questioned and analyzed Brazilian colonial history and contemporary society. At that time, Brazil occupied an important place among modern nations due to the particularities of Portuguese colonization and the many African traditions that have forged the national character in a society preserved “from the bitter fruits of racial discrimination.”58 It was a clear passage from the problem of African heritage in the New World, in which Haiti played a central role, to the problem of racial relations. The contemporary Brazilian situation was compared to those of the United States and South Africa and pointed toward a possible racial harmony in which apartheid and segregation laws did not exist. Nevertheless, following his scientific endeavor, Métraux argued for the need of ethnographic research to determine what constituted this social harmony and its connections to socioeconomic features. He then participated in a large-scale survey together with Brazilian and foreigner researchers, such as Roger Bastide, Charles Wagley, Marvin Harris, Thales de Azevedo, Florestan Fernandes, Luiz Aguiar de Costa Pinto, René Ribeiro, and Oracy Nogueira. They surveyed five areas considered fundamental to the understanding of racial relations in the country: Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and the inlands areas of the northeast.59

The research in Brazil did not confirm the expectation that the country could serve as an example of a harmonic society. Instead, the research as a whole revealed that in Brazil, with its many regional particularities, racism was structural and had particular connections with class divisions despite the apparent “cooperation between races.” Nevertheless, while this conclusion was being formulated, and even after that, UNESCO never stopped aiming for the protection of human rights on a global scale, particularly for ethnic and racial minorities, something that changed for good the global perspective on human difference and social divisions.60 Racism was perceived as a threat to peace and World War II stood as a strong example and a clear memory of how wrongful understanding of otherness could lead to tragedy. UNESCO’s goal was to educate and build a global conscience against misleading biological theories about human differences. With this in mind, the transnational institution promoted the publication and diffusion of numerous pamphlets, including its own newspaper, the Courier, based on scientific research on society, history, biology, and human differences.61 In 1952, as part of this project, Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote a piece on race and history that caused an important impact. He argued that human civilization was a whole, forged through the “coexisting of cultures” in which diversity should be a value and “depend[ed] less on isolation of the various groups than on the relations between them.”62 Métraux had a similar view of culture. Rather than an isolated collection of elements, it was a dynamic process of intense interrelation.63

The Tragic Sentiment of Our Insularity

All through the 1950s, Métraux deepened his engagements with human rights. He put special emphasis on the emancipatory capacity of science. At the same time, he never stopped writing about his fieldwork experiences and kept visiting and exploring other countries. A proof of Métraux’s intellectual coherence was how he continued to address his previous research in various forms of publications, and in English, French, and Spanish. When U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy rose to prominence on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, the United States became for him an unpleasant place. As he would ask his friend Pierre Verger, “What is the witch hunt in Africa if compared to the persecution of the most sympathetic people in the United States in the name of a political and moral conformism whose description could make us throw up [?]”64 He kept revisiting his past fields, revealing an ample agenda of work organized around common themes and questions that were constantly reframed around new comparative materials that he gathered along his travels. He shared a sort of “ethnophilia,” defined by Jean-Philippe Belleau as this ethical and affective dimension of oneself, not necessarily toward a specific ethnic group but for what he considered vanishing civilizations.65

He became professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1959, training and sending to the field in South America ethnographers such as Lucien Sebag and Pierre Clastres. Science was for him a way of inquiring reality (or multiple realities) both as a political and poetic craft. In a way, his early works as an ethnologist were not that distant from his later engagements and productions as a sociologist. He never abandoned his visions about the universal principles of humanity, rooted in a strong cosmopolitan perspective, while remaining attentive to the cultural diversity of each culture, its history and its people. Métraux combined an empirical standpoint with a great attention to ethical values. He was, as he used to describe himself, “a man of the field.”

If Métraux thought himself “destined to the study of insular mysteries,”66 from Easter Island to Haiti and beyond, the facts of political conflict and intense processes of social change and modernization made him assume a pessimistic regard toward the world and also to his own work. As Roger Bastide would put it, Métraux lived the drama common to every ethnologist and in a way to every human being: “the tragic sentiment of our insularity.”67 Along with Michel Leiris and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Alfred Métraux was part of a group of Europeans who felt the impact of the war and who first witnessed the effects of decolonization, bringing back to Europe news of the tragedies of the modernist project, a “neurotic or sacrificed generation,” in the words of anthropologist Florent Kohler.68 As Pierre Clastres once remembered, Métraux used to talk about himself as someone “nostalgic of the Neolithic.”69

Alfred Métraux’s last piece was published in April 1963, bearing as title the question Does Life End at Sixty?70 The article appeared in the UNESCO Courier and discussed the ways different cultures deal with aging. An anguished final paragraph compares the respected and active position of the elderly in traditional cultures to “the comfort offered by our communal homes for the aged.”71 It was his farewell note. That same month, on April 11, 1963, Métraux killed himself at the Chevreuse Valley, not far from Paris. He took a lethal amount of barbiturates and, as he did while watching his father’s death, carefully described it by paying attention to the effects on his body and mind.72 His death can be seen as a form of sacrifice, the afflictive passing of an ancestor who has left testimonies and reflections about a troubling world, revealing the importance of people’s work and public engagement as historians, philosophers, and social scientists.

Discussion of the Literature

Alfred Métraux refused to draw excessive theoretical conclusions in his works and ended up not formulating a great theory that could join the anthropological canon. Although he had developed some general ideas about culture in his work on Haitian Vodou and in specific articles about applied anthropology, for him, ethnography was a central feature in a relation of knowledge production, a theory built through observations and in a close dialogue with interlocutors. As Lévi-Strauss remarked in his posthumous homage, for Métraux, ethnology “[was] a human science in all its meanings (…), which drawing from traditional disciplines such as paleontography, archeology, philology, and history (…) was able to constantly invigorate itself through fieldwork experience.”73 Due to his multiple fields and activities, it is hard to define Métraux according to usual disciplinary classifications—ethnologist, sociologist, ethnohistorian—or according to national traditions. He was the product of a heroic moment of French ethnology, but was influenced as well by the Swedish school of ethnology and later was part of a crucial period in American anthropology. His fieldwork followed an unorthodox itinerary, making it difficult to limit him to such classical labels Americanist, Polynesianist, Haitianist, Brazilianist, or the like. Fact is that his works keep a constant influence according to its specific area or geography, although hardly being taken as a whole.

His investigations among the Gran Chaco and Andean populations, as well as his work on Easter Island, are of great value due to the his scientific interpretations on each of these fields. Likewise, his writings on religion, migration, and ritual among the Tupinamba pointed to the methodological possibility of combining ethnography among contemporary Amerindian populations with the historical analysis of travelers’ and missionaries’ accounts from earlier centuries. The importance he ascribed to shamans and prophets in the Amerindian religious and political life inspired the works of French anthropologists such as Helène and Pierre Clastres and were crucial to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural analysis of classificatory systems and variants of myths in the Americas. In Brazil, Métraux’s work found fertile terrain and was engaged by sociologist and anthropologist Florestan Fernandes, who focused his classical thesis on the social function of war among the Tupinamba and the central role played by ancestry and the appropriation of enemies’ names. These developments gave particular prominence to the field of Amerindian historiography and ethnohistory, which inspired recent formulations about Amerindian temporalities, personhood, and ontologies established by anthropologists such as Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, Nádia Farage, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

His book on Haitian Vodou remains a classical reference to those working in Haiti and the Caribbean. Owing to its ethnographic sensibility and its descriptions about peasants’ lives, kinship, religion, and views of political changes, it is an important historical document. It can also be quite inspiring thanks to its engagement with local notions and conceptions such as that of “knowledge” (konesans), so central to the author’s analysis. Haitian Vodou proved its persistence as a dynamic process by, on the one hand, finding its way into a political struggle for recognition and identity in a public sphere dominated by class, racial, and religious tensions. On the other hand, as anthropologists and historians like Rachel Beauvoir, Karen M. Brown, Karen Richman, Elizabeth McAlister and Kate Ramsey reveal, Vodou remains an important set of dynamic popular practices and spirits actively participate in the material world by dwelling in specific places such as family land, trees, water sources, and caves, and by manifesting agency in different forms of exchange with those who are alive.

Recently, interest in Métraux’s life and work has grown. From the publication of new editions of his early writings, to the organization of meetings worldwide to debate works, to the publication of articles exploring specific moments of his life and the personal connections he made during his travels.74 His artifact collections, written documents, and pictures are spread around the globe as part of the Smithsonian Institution collections, at the Instituto de Etnología of the University of Tucumán, and at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, in Paris. Métraux was an assiduous correspondent, keeping a constant exchange with his friends and colleagues, and also a conspicuous writer, writing journals and drawing important reflections on books and academic or non-academic magazines. Thanks to this rich body of materials, new insights are being drawn and new possibilities for research are being pointed out. Nevertheless, still lacking is research that would put together his many sites and themes of work with his position as someone who tried to institutionalize academic knowledge by establishing connections between central and peripheral contexts, institution and field, science and public engagement. More clarifications are needed to understand, for instance, the importance of his work on the Incas (a work qualified by Levi-Strauss as being as remarkable as the one on Easter Island); how his early readings of Neopolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico influenced him; what his World War II experience meant for his later work; and how Paul Radin’s Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin, which he translated to French, impacted his work.75

Métraux never ignored the importance of applied knowledge. Praxis, according to Métraux, was never exterior to the scientific endeavor. He and many of his friends and colleagues, such as Marcel Mauss, Paul Rivet, Yvonne Oddon, and Jacques Roumain, considered research institutions as integral to educational projects, collections, institutions, and political initiatives to promote social change and justice. In the contemporary academic world, in which the neoliberal job market seems to be imposing its rhythms and demands and it is no longer a problem to have anthropologists working in corporations, to think of the moral role that social scientists share in seeking justice and equality is to be in connection with an important part of humanity’s intellectual, ethical, and institutional history—a history full of sacrifices and imperfections.

As variegated and unorthodox as Métraux’s trajectory might seem, trying to see how his displacements and the many people he interacted with influenced his work and how one field illuminated the other and formed him as a researcher and officer will uncover new perspectives about his life as well as reveal important facts about the multiple contexts in which he participated. At the same time, it will shed light on new possibilities for science and applied knowledge in a world that demands ever more public engagement.

Primary Sources

Archives of Alfred Métraux’s work can be found in many parts of the globe. Some of them hold personal journals and research notes, while others preserve relevant correspondence by or addressed to the ethnologist as well as artifacts and pictures he collected during his travels. Some important materials can be found in the archives of the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán and at the Smithsonian Institution. Other correspondences, pictures, and artifacts from the length of his career are available at the Collège de France, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, and the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale—all in Paris. The UNESCO Archives and the Archives of the Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle hold important sources on his fieldwork in Haiti, on the pilot project on health and education, and on the UNESCO project on racial relations in Brazil. At the Bibliothèque Haïtienne des Frères de Saint Louis de Gonzague, in Port-au-Prince, there is good collection of his published works on Haiti and Haitian Vodou. Métraux himself sent them to the library.

Personal archives of his friends and colleagues also hold letters and documents that may be useful for research about specific moments of his life, as for instance, Yvonne Oddon’s collection at the General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, at Yale University; the Michel Leiris Funds at the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet; Pierre Verger’s records at Fundação Pierre Verger, in Salvador, Brazil; and the Melville J. Herskovits Papers, at Northwestern University Library, for correspondences ranging from 1936 to 1941. Odette Mennesson-Rigaud’s archives were damaged by the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Port-au-Prince but are being reestablished. This collection might hold crucial documents for understanding Métraux’s exchanges with his interlocutors and also the influence of Odette Mennesson-Rigaud’s notes and collections in Métraux’s work.

Some of his letters and journals were compiled in different articles published in edited volumes in his honor or in specific publications. The best collection of testimonials and documents can be found in Présence d’Alfred Métraux, ed. Dominique Lecoq (Paris: Acéphale—Les Amis de Georges Bataille, 1992). For the letters exchanged with Pierre Verger, his “twin brother” and confidante, see Le pied à l’étrier: correspondances 1946–1963, ed. Jean-Pierre Le Bouler (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1994). For his early journals, see Itinéraires 1 (1935–1953) Carnets de notes et journaux de voyage, ed. André-Marcel d’Ans (Paris: Payot, 1978). For some fragments and comments about his journals ranging from 1953 to 1961 that were never published (for editorial reasons), see André-Marcel d’Ans, “Le contenu d’Itinéraires 2 (1953–1961),” in Présence d’Alfred Métraux. A complete bibliography of the author was gathered by Claude Tardits and later extended at an edited volume organized by Claude Auroi and Alain Monnier followed by a list of published works dedicated to, or that engaged with, Alfred Métraux.76 Finally, some of his personal materials are still held by his family and other institutions and might be made public in the future.

Unesco Archives: a complete collection of Métraux publications at the The Unesco Courier as well as other collections.

Calames, catalog of archives and manuscripts in French universities and libraries.

Rhoda Métraux Papers, Library of the Congress, USA.

Alfred Métraux voyages.

Further Reading

French Ethnology, Museums, and Ethnographic Missions

Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Surrealism.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23.4 (October 1984): 539–564.Find this resource:

Fabre, Daniel, and Claudie Voisenat, eds. Les Carnets de Bérose, no. 1–7. Paris: Lahic/Direction générale des patrimoines, 2013–2015.Find this resource:

Fournier, Marcel. Marcel Mauss: A Biography. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

l’Estoile, Benoît de. “From the Colonial Exhibition to the Museum of Man: An Alternative Genealogy of French Anthropology.” Social Anthropology 11.3 (2003): 341–361.Find this resource:

Larson, Carolyn R.Our Indigenous Ancestors: Museum Anthropology and Nation-Making in Argentina, 1862–1943. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Laurière, Christine. Paul Rivet, le savant et le politique. Paris: Publications Scientifiques du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 2008.Find this resource:

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “French Sociology,” In Twentieth Century Sociology. Edited by G. Gurvitch and W. E. Moore, 503–537. New York: The Philosophical Library, 1945.Find this resource:

Mauss, Marcel. “L’ethnographie en France et à l’étranger.” In Œuvres, vol. 3. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969.Find this resource:

Peixoto, Fernanda. A viagem como vocação. Itinerários, parcerias e formas de conhecimento. São Paulo: Editora da Universidade de São Paulo, 2015.Find this resource:

Argentine, Amerindians, Easter Island, United States, and World War II

Córdoba, Lorena, Frederico Bossert, and Nicolas Richard, eds. Capitalismo en las selvas: Enclaves industriales en el Chaco y Amazonía indígenas (1850–1950). San Pedro de Atacama: Ediciones del Desierto, 2015.Find this resource:

Fischer, Steven R.Island at the End of the World: The Turbulent History of Easter Island. London: Reaktion Books, 2005.Find this resource:

Goulard, Jean-Pierre, and Patrick Menget. “Présentation.” In La religion des Tupinamba et ses rapports avec celle des autres tribus tupi-guarani. Edited by Alfred Métraux, 1–23. Paris: Presses Universitaire de France, 2014.Find this resource:

Métraux, Alfred. The Morale Division: An Ethnography of the Misery of War. Edited by Edgardo Krebs. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Monnier, Alain. Nostalgie du Néolithique: de Lausanne à Las Lomitas. Documents sur Alfred Métraux ethnologue. Geneva, Switzerland: Société d’Etudes Alfred Métraux and Labor et Fides, 2003.Find this resource:

Price, David. Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Villar, Diego. “Culture matérielle et changement: Alfred Métraux chez les Chiriguano.” Journal de la société des américanistes 102.2 (2016): 99–119.Find this resource:

Haiti, Haitian Vodou, UNESCO, Brazil, and Racial Relations

Bulamah, Rodrigo C. “Um lugar para os espíritos: os sentidos do movimento os sentidos do movimento desde um povoado haitiano.” Cadernos Pagu 45 (2005): 79–110.Find this resource:

Collins, John. Revolt of the Saints: Memory and Redemption in the Twilight of Brazilian “Racial Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Cosentino, Donald J., ed. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum, 1995.Find this resource:

Dubois, Laurent. “Thinking Haitian Independence in Haitian Vodou.” In The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy. Edited by Julia Gaffield, 201–218. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Duedhal, Poul, ed. A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Goyatá, Julia. Etnologia, arte e política: a experiência haitiana de Alfred Métraux. PhD diss., Department of Anthropology, Universidade de São Paulo, 2018.Find this resource:

Maio, Marcos C., and Ricardo V. Santos, eds. Raça, Ciência e Sociedade. Rio de Janeiro: Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil e Editora Fiocruz, 1996.Find this resource:

Maurel, Chloé. Histoire de l’Unesco. Les trente premières années: 1945–1974. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2002.Find this resource:

Mintz, Sidney. Three Ancient Colonies: Caribbean Themes and Variations. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Palmié, Stephan, ed. Africa of the Americas: Beyond the Search for Origins in the Study of Afro-Atlantic Religions. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2008.Find this resource:

Richman, Karen. Migration and Vodou. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.Find this resource:

Roumain, Jacques. Œuvres complètes. Edited by Léon-François Hoffmann. Madrid: ALLCA XX, Collection Archivos, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) Alfred Métraux, Le Vaudou Haïtien (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 13. First published in English as Voodoo in Haiti (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are the author’s.

(2.) Alfred Métraux, La civilisation matérielle des tribus Tupí-Guaraní (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1928).

(3.) Alfred Métraux, La religion des Tupinamba et ses rapports avec celle des autres tribus tupi-guarani (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2014).

(4.) It is important to remark that the term ethnology, rather than anthropology, was predominant in the early 20th-century French field of social sciences. Paul Rivet, who advocated for the term, defined it as the “science of man in its totality.” On that matter, see Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Place of Anthropology in the Social Sciences and the Problem Raised in Teaching It,” in Structural Anthropology, trans. C. Jacobson and B. G. Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), particularly, pp. 354–359. For an analysis of these definitions and how they changed in France due to different intellectual projects, see Benoît de l’Estoile, Le gout des autres. De l’Exposition colonial aux Arts premiers (Paris: Flammarion, 2007), 132–134.

(5.) Christine Laurière, Paul Rivet, le savant et le politique (Paris: Publications Scientifiques du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 2008).

(6.) On the impact of New World anthropophagic rituals accounts in France, see, for instance, Michel de Montaigne, “The Cannibals,” and Etienne de la Boétie, “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” in Selected Essays with La Boétie’s Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, ed. Michel de Montaigne, trans. J. B. Atikinson and D. Sices (Indianapolis: Hacket, 2012). See also Cristina Pompa, “O profetismo tupi-guarani: a construção de um objeto antropológico,” Revista de Indias 64.230 (2004): 141–174.

(7.) Fernanda Peixoto, “O nativo e o narrativo: os trópicos de Lévi-Strauss e a África de Michel Leiris,” Novos Estudos Cebrap 33 (July 1992): 187–198.

(8.) In a letter from 1928 to the Dean of the University of Tucumán, Rivet reveals that another reason for indicating Métraux to direct the Institute was the fact that it was impossible for him to employ a Swiss due to legal restrictions in France. See Edgardo Krebs, “Jorges Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux: Disagreements, Affinities,” Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6.2 (2016): 313. See also, Edgardo Krebs, “Alfred Métraux and The Handbook of South American Indians: A View From Within,” History of Anthropology Newsletter 32.1 (June 2005): 5.

(9.) About his early experience of fieldwork while he was only twenty-one years old and already a student of Marcel Mauss, see See Jean-Pierre Le Bouler, “Alfred Métraux en 1922: de l’Ecole des Chartes à l’Amérique du Sud,” in Présence d’Alfred Métraux, ed. Dominique Lecoq (Paris: Acéphale—Les Amis de Georges Bataille, 1992), 129–139.

(10.) Alfred Métraux and Fernande Bing. “Entretiens avec Alfred Métraux,” L’Homme 4.2 (1964): 23.

(11.) Diego Villar and Federico Bossert, “La etnología chiriguano de Alfred Métraux,” Journal de la Société des Américanistes 93.1 (2007): 127–166.

(12.) Paul Rivet, “L’institut d’ethnologie de l’Université de Tucumán,” Journal de la société des américanistes 25.1 (1933): 188–189.

(13.) About the ambitious project that was the Revista del Instituto de Etnología de Tucumán, see Krebs, “Alfred Métraux and The Handbook of South American Indians,” 6.

(14.) Métraux’s interest on Amerindians’ migration dates from before his theses defenses, when he published the book Migrations historiques des Tupi-Guarani. “Land-without-evil” (La terre sans mal) was the name of his intended autobiography. See Krebs, “Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux,” 306, n. 18.

(15.) Alfred Métraux, “Civilización material de los indios Uro-Chipaya de Carangas (Bolivia),” Revista del Instituto de Etnología de la Universidad Nacional de Tucumán 3.1 (1935): 108.

(16.) Alfred Métraux, “La mujer en la vida social y religiosa de los indios chiriguano,” Revista del Instituto de Etnología de la Universidad Nacional de Tucumán 3.1 (1935): 145–166.

(17.) Villar and Bossert, “La etnología chiriguano,” 147–148. See also Alfred Métraux, “La mujer en la vida social,” especially 148.

(18.) As Métraux himself wrote, pottery “opened ample horizons to other human activity: art.” Quoted in Villar and Bossert, “La etnología chiriguano,” 153. Created in 1878, the Musée d’Éthnographie du Trocadéro held an important collection of African artifacts, paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects. Their exhibition caused a strong impact on French metropolitan and colonial intellectual and artistic scenes. The Trocadéro’s collection would later be transferred to the Musée de l’Homme, created in 1938, under the auspices of Paul Rivet. See, for instance, Benoît de l’Estoile, “From the Colonial Exhibition to the Museum of Man: An Alternative Genealogy of French Anthropology,” Social Anthropology 11.3 (2003): 341–361; and Christine Laurière, “Lo bello y lo útil, el esteta y el etnógrafo: El caso del Museo Etnográfico de Trocadero y del Museo del Hombre (1928–1940),” Revista de Indias 72.254 (2012): 35–66.

(19.) Letter from Alfred Métraux to Yvonne Oddon, Tucumán, August 21, 1933, quoted in Christine Laurière, L’Odyssée pascuane. Mission Métraux-Lavachery, île de Pâques (1934–1935) (Paris: Les Carnets de Bérose, Lahic/Direction générale des patrimoines, 2014), 53.

(20.) Krebs, “Alfred Métraux and The Handbook of South American Indians,” 6.

(21.) Laurière, L’Odyssée pascuane, 54 (for Rivet’s promise), 56–57 (about Métraux’s hesitations) et passim (for a description of Métraux’s trip). See also Alfred Métraux, Easter Island. A Stone-age Civilization of the Pacific, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), 11–12.

(22.) See Laurière, L’Odyssée pascuane, 54. Alfred Métraux Sr. had a taste for archeology and collected travel books, which were important for developing his son’s interest for the exotic. See Krebs, “Jorges Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux,” 304.

(23.) Marcel Mauss, “L’ethnographie en France et à l’étranger,” in Œuvres 3 (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1969), 395–434; Jean Jamin, Le cercueil de Queequeq. Mission Dakar-Djibouti, mai 1931–février 1933 (Paris: Les Carnets de Bérose, Lahic/Direction générale des patrimoines, 2014).

(24.) Alfred Métraux, “Ethnology of Easter Island,” Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin 160 (1940): 4 (for Victoria Rapahongo); and Métraux, Easter Island, 15, 23 and 24, respectively.

(25.) Métraux, Easter Island, 11 and 24.

(26.) Ibid., 11 (for Métraux’s expectations); Laurière, L’Odysée pascuane, 59.

(27.) See Laurière, L’Odysée pascuane, 26–38, for a description of the early hypotheses around the rongorongo, and 113–114, for a discussion around Métraux’s and Rivet’s distinct interpretations and its possible consequences.

(28.) Métraux, “Ethnology of Easter Island.”

(29.) See Vincent Debaene, Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature, trans. Justin Izzo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), x. As the author states, “Written in 1930s, they try to compensate for the shortcomings of the documentary anthropology that was then being developed around the Musée de l’Homme. By their mere existence reveal the inadequacy of the positive, museum-based paradigm on which French anthropology thought it could be founded—but they don’t modify this paradigm.” The 1941 edition of L’Île de Pâques was modified in 1951, losing much of its literary features. The second edition was the one used for the English translation of 1957. See Christine Laurière, L’Odyssée pascuane, 6–8.

(30.) Alfred Métraux to Michel Leiris, January 10, 1936, Honolulu, quoted in Christine Laurière, “D’une île à l’autre. Alfred Métraux en Haïti,” Gradhiva 1 (2005): 31, n. 3.

(31.) Paul Radin, “Review to The Handbook of South American Indians,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 28.4 (1948): 540, emphasis in the original.

(32.) Julian Steward, ed., Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1946), 9.

(33.) Priscila Faulhaber, “The Production of the Handbook of South American Indians Vol 3 (1936–1948),” Vibrant 9.1 (2012): 84–111. For an interesting argument about the different scientific standpoints between Métraux and Steward regarding the organization of the Handbook, see Krebs, “Alfred Métraux and The Handbook of South American Indians.”

(34.) Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Hommage à Alfred Métraux,” L’Homme 4.2 (1964): 6.

(35.) See Vincent Debaene, “‘Like Alice Through the Looking Glass’: Claude Lévi-Strauss in New York,” French Politics, Culture & Society 28.1 (Spring 2010): 46–57.

(36.) See Laurière, L’Odyssée pascuane, 56, especially Métraux’s letter to Yvonne Oddon. See also Krebs, “Alfred Métraux and The Handbook of South American Indians,” 8.

(37.) Julia Goyatá, Georges Bataille e Michel Leiris: a experiência do sagrado (São Paulo: Humanitas/FAPESP, 2016).

(38.) See Laurière, “D’une île à l’autre : Alfred Métraux en Haïti.”

(39.) See, for instance, Jacques Roumain, À propos de la campagne “anti-supersticieuse”/Las Supersticiones (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1942). For a sophisticated analysis of the antisuperstition campaign in Haiti, see Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), especially ch. 4.

(40.) Alfred Métraux, Le Vaudou Haïtien (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 13. See also J. Michael Dash, “Caraïbe Fantôme: The Play of Difference in the Francophone Caribbean,” Yale French Studies 103 (2003): 93–105.

(41.) See Carolyn Fowler, A Knot in the Thread: The Life and Work of Jacques Roumain (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1980); Christine Laurière, “Jacques Roumain, ethnologue haïtien,” L’Homme 173 (2005): 187–197; and Joshua Clough, “Exile and Ethnography; Jacques Roumain and the Problem of Place in Haitian National Thought; 1927–1944,” CUNY Academic Works (2004): 1–44.

(42.) Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, 17.

(43.) See Federico Neiburg and Marcio Goldman, “Anthropology and Politics in Studies of National Character,” Cultural Anthropology 13.1 (1998): 56–81.

(44.) Alfred Métraux, The Morale Division: An Ethnography of the Misery of War, ed. Edgardo Krebs (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

(45.) See Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law, 218–247, and Alfred Métraux, “Vodou et protestantisme,” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 144.2 (1953): 198–216.

(46.) Alfred Métraux, “Introduction,” in Odette Mennesson-Rigaud, “Feasting of Gods in Haitian Vodu,” Primitive Man 19. 1/2 (January–April 1946): 1–58, quotations from p. 4. Cf. Jean Jamin, “Rendez-vous manqué avec le vodou,” Gradhiva 1 (2005): 225–231.

(47.) See, for instance, Michel Leiris, “Sacrifice d’un taureau chez le hougan Jo Pierre-Gilles,” Présence Africaine 12 (1951): 22–36; Alfred Métraux and Pierre Verger, Haiti: Black Peasants and Voodoo, trans. Peter Lengyel (New York: Universe Books, 1960); and Yvonne Oddon, “Une cérémonie funéraire haïtienne,” Mémoires de l’Institut Français d’Afrique Noire27 (1953): 246–248. Yvonne Oddon also contributed to the UNESCO project acting at on the pedagogic field.

(48.) Alfred Métraux to Georges Bataille, May 1954, quoted in Fernande Schulmann-Métraux, “Alfred Métraux et Georges Bataille,” in Présence d’Alfred Métraux, ed. Dominique Lecoq, 170.

(49.) Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, 18.

(50.) Métraux, Voodoo in Haiti, 61.

(51.) Métraux and Verger, Haiti: Black Peasants and Voodoo, 83. See also Métraux, Le vaudou haïtien, 323.

(52.) Métraux and Verger, Haiti: Black Peasants and Voodoo, 82–83.

(53.) See Jean Price-Mars, So Spoke the Uncle: Ainsi Parla l’Oncle, trans. Magdaline W. Shannon (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1983).

(54.) See Alfred Métraux, “Anthropology and the Unesco Pilot Project of Marbial (Haiti),” América Indígena 9.3 (1949): 183–194; For the reason of the choice of that specific place and the political and religious conflicts around that definition, see Christine Laurière, “D’une île à l’autre. Alfred Métraux en Haïti,” 16–22.

(55.) See letter from Alfred Métraux to John Bowers, October 22, 1948, Box II, Haiti Pilot Project Fund, UNESCO Archive, Paris. See also Alfred Métraux, “UNESCO and Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 53.2 (April–June 1951): 294–300; Alfred Métraux, “Anthropologist Reports on Fundamental Education,” The UNESCO Courier 1.3 (April 1948): 4; and Laurière, “D’une île à l’autre. Alfred Métraux en Haïti,” 11.

(56.) Alfred Métraux, “Applied Anthropology in Government: United Nations,” in Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory, ed. Alfred L. Kroeber, 880–894 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 889.

(57.) See Lorenzo Macagno, “Alfred Métraux: antropologia aplicada e lusotropicalismo,” Etnográfica 17.2 (2013): 217–239.

(58.) Alfred Métraux, “An Inquiry into Race Relations in Brazil,” The UNESCO Courier 5.8–9 (August–September 1952): 6.

(59.) See Marcos Chor Maio, “UNESCO and the Study of Racial Relations in Brazil: Regional or National Issue?,” Latin American Research Review 36.2 (2001): 118–136.

(60.) Poul Duedahl, “UNESCO Man: Changing the Concept of Race, 1945–1965,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, California, November 2008.

(61.) Edgardo Krebs, “Popularizing Anthropology, Combating Racism: Alfred Métraux at The UNESCO Courier,” in A History of UNESCO: Global Actions and Impacts, ed. Poul Duedhal (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 29–48.

(62.) Claude Lévi-Strauss, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), 45.

(63.) Métraux, “Applied Anthropology in Government: United Nations,” 892.

(64.) Métraux and Verger, Le pied à l’étrier: correspondances 1946–1963 (Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1994), 180. See also, Alfred Métraux, Itinéraires 1 (1935–1953). Carnets de notes et journaux de voyage, ed. André-Marcel d’Ans, 285–286, 487 (Paris: Payot, 1978); and Macagno, “Alfred Métraux,” 232–235.

(65.) Jean-Philippe Belleau, Ethnophilie: l’amour des autres nations (Paris: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2015). See also, Piero Matthey, “Le terrain, mon amour,” Bulletin Genevois d’Anthropologie 5 (1995–1996): 31–35.

(66.) Alfred Métraux and Fernande Bing. “Entretiens avec Alfred Métraux,” L’Homme 4.2 (1964): 28.

(67.) Roger Bastide, “Hommage à Alfred Métraux,” L’Homme 4.2 (1964): 8.

(68.) Florent Kohler, “Vers une anthropologie intime: la correspondance d’Alfred Métraux et de Pierre Verger,” in Au fil de la plume, no. 10, ed. Anne-Marie Quint (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle), 76.

(69.) Pierre Clastres, “Hommage à Alfred Métraux,” in Présence d’Alfred Métraux, ed. Dominique Lecoq, 29–34.

(70.) Alfred Métraux. “Does Life End at Sixty?,” The Unesco Courier 16.,4).

(71.) Ibid., 23.

(72.) Michel Leiris wrote about Métraux’s last words on his journal. See, Michel Leiris, Journal (1922–1989) (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 591–592. See also Leiris’s comments about Métraux’s passing, in “A Conversation with Michel Leiris,” eds. Sally Price and Jean Jamin, Current Anthropology 29.1 (February 1988): 168; and Guy Poitry, “Carrefour des poètes: Michel Leiris et Alfred Métraux,” Bulletin Genevois d’Anthropologie 5 (1995–1996): 3–9. On documenting his father’s passing, see Krebs, “Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux,” 304.

(73.) Lévi-Strauss, “Hommage à Alfred Métraux,” 7. On the differences between Métraux and Lévi-Strauss, see Krebs, “Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux.”

(74.) See, for instance, the last issue of the Journal de la société des américanistes dedicated to Alfred Métraux. Philippe Erikson (ed.). Journal de la société des américanistes, 102.2 (2016).

(75.) Lévi-Strauss, “Hommage à Alfred Métraux,” 7; Krebs, “Jorge Luis Borges and Alfred Métraux,” 305–306.

(76.) Claude Tardits, “Bibliographie d’Alfred Métraux,” L’homme 4.2 (1964), 49–62; Claude Auroi and Alain Mounnier, Du pays de Vaud au pays du vaudou: ethnologies d’Alfred Métraux (Geneva, Switzerland: Musée d’ethnographie de Genève/IUED, 1996), 86–97.